One of the joys of parenting is finding that zone of moderate challenge for your child, and setting up fun opportunities for her to teach herself through exploration and play.
With this in mind, here are some ideas that will provide hours of child-directed play for many two-year-olds:
- Kindergarten blocks — natural wood blocks in a variety of shapes and sizes, for creative building.
- Sorting toys — sorting is one of the most important intellectual tasks for two year olds. A simple sorting toy can be made out of an egg carton and some buttons (make sure the buttons have open holes, in case the child gets one in her mouth — they shouldn’t be used unsupervised). Have the child put the red buttons in one receptacle, the blue in another, etc. Then, dump them out and put the round buttons in one, the square in another, and so on. As she learns how to organize the same information in several different ways, it will prepare her to receive and organize the massive information influx over the next year.
- Dolls of all sizes, animals, puppets, toy telephones, toy buildings, simple vehicles (cars, trucks, and trains), old clothes, and simple costumes — all of these can encourage vibrant, imaginative play. Again, observe your child. Some kids would love to pretend with a toy lawn mower, others with a kitchen set, and others wouldn’t like either.
- Balls of all shapes and sizes, connecting toys (large stringing beads), digging toys (bucket, shovel, and rake), a sandbox, a beginner’s tricycle, a child keyboard (or other musical instruments), and large crayons can all stimulate physical as well as intellectual and emotional development.
- Books. Reading together is a rich experience that supports language development and nurtures your bond with your child. Story telling can also be quite powerful. Make your child and people she knows into characters for some of your stories. Use both everyday events and time-honored tales.
- Computer programs — As we prepare to enter the 21st century, our children will need to be adept with computers. Many interactive computer programs now teach numbers, colors, shapes, and pre-reading skills. Children absolutely love these. This software is both far better and far worse than television. The programs are highly educational and promote the active involvement of children; they even satisfy children’s desire for praise and attention (with cartoon characters dancing and singing when children figure something out). As such, however, they can be even more addictive than TV. Use them as enrichment, but don’t let them act as a substitute for your praise, your attention, your involvement. Don’t let them supplant the wonder of the real world all around us.
Play is your child’s job. Toys are powerful tools. Nevertheless, don’t be lulled into the misconception that more is better. More toys, more lights, more sounds, and more money do not make for a happier or healthier child. Many studies have shown that even the most deprived environments are full of opportunities for play. If the toys are versatile, and someone is willing to play along, children with fewer toys will often experience even more delight and creativity. Children need safety, freedom, loving attention, and praise. They can often make their own toys.